Briefly describe the work you do.
Blurring the lines between photography and sculpture, my work can be best described as photographic relief sculpture. With a special focus on geography, it addresses the way we relate and respond to the natural environment and is primarily aiming at exploring the contours of today’s dislocated consumer society. Topographic charts provide my main source of inspiration and constitute an indispensable tool within my creative practice.
Generally made from cardboard and paper, all pieces are painstakingly cut and assembled by hand. I strongly believe that I wouldn’t be able to grasp the very essence of my work, if I didn’t sculpt it manually – just like landscape can be fully experienced only by walking. In this way, my artistic practice is not limited to addressing sustainability issues only, but also an approach to sustainable design.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
When I started studying architecture, I would never have imagined that one day I would call myself a visual artist. On the other hand, if I had studied art I would have probably never come up with the idea of doing photographic relief sculpture. Actually, the origins of my artistic practice can be traced back to architecture school where I discovered my passion for model making: I was not only captivated by the intrinsic aesthetics of traditional contour-line modeling – a common tool in architecture – but also utterly convinced of its artistic potential. After graduation, whilst working within the profession for several years, my passion turned into an obsession, and I eventually jumped in at the deep end.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I generally spend a lot of time in front of the computer (for project-related research, technical drawings, and photo editing, as well as for day-to-day administration, PR, marketing and communication tasks), and, unless I don’t have to print, I can do that anywhere. As a matter of fact, you’ll most probably find me outside the studio whilst carrying out this kind of work. Since photography is fundamental to my work, I am also doing a lot of photographic fieldwork.
It is only after the preparation phase of a project that the studio becomes my main workspace and I won’t leave it until the final artwork is completed. At this stage, being in the studio means up to several weeks of solitary, persistent and meticulous manual labour, and corresponds mainly to cutting, stacking and gluing innumerable layers or fragments of cardboard and paper.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
When I started out as an artist, I actually didn’t realize what I was getting myself into, although I’m definitely glad I did! I’m still naïve enough to believe that the art business is not just another business.
Back then, I completely underestimated the importance of my educational background. Though historically considered as one of the main fine arts, architecture didn’t seem to qualify me to take the plunge into visual art – when it came to applying for certain scholarships or getting into a gallery, I was simply not admitted, as holding a degree in the visual arts was compulsory. I also undervalued the influence of age and gender on my career progression. I started doing photographic relief sculpture at the age of 33 and it roughly took me two years to make enough work to build a strong portfolio. At this time I was 35, but most open calls are restricted to artists under the age of 35. So whereas I had just begun promoting myself as an emerging young artists, the rest of the art world considered me an old lady already.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
Unfortunately, at this stage of my career, I cannot make a living with my art and have to juggle more than one job. As working time is distributed unevenly throughout the year, I have little choice but to make art whenever time allows. Luckily, inspiration often comes unexpectedly, and since art moves freely in the realms of freedom and discipline, imagination and reality, part of the conceptual work can be done at any time.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I’m afraid my work hasn’t changed a lot since I got started in 2007. As my pieces take considerable amounts of time to produce, and success doesn’t happen overnight either, it feels like it was only yesterday that I took my first steps as a visual artist.
Yet, the world is changing fast and technology is also redefining art and artists. When it comes to the issue that my photographic relief sculptures are entirely made by hand, I usually get a lot of well-intentioned advice on how to improve my performance: Consider a laser cutter! But, from my point of view, art is not about mass production. Besides, what to some people may seem like a huge chore, for me doesn’t even feel like work.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I can’t think of nobody in particular having had a greater impact on my work so far, at least not consciously. Influence is everywhere.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
As I explained earlier, I found my way into photographic relief sculpture rather by accident. Today, I wouldn’t change it for anything. Despite pretty much fulfilling the stereotype of the starving artist, I wouldn’t want my old job back. I enjoy the freedom of working autonomously, drawing a much greater benefit from the process of creation than from the money I could possibly earn. Besides, and that’s the great thing about art, it allows you to discuss any topic and, that way, target the intersection of multiple interests.
Stefanie Herr, born 1974 in Germany, holds a degree in Architecture from TU Berlin. After working in architectural design and model making for several years, she decided to pursue a genuinely artistic career and began mainly experimenting on photographic relief sculptures in 2007. Stefanie currently lives and works in Barcelona. Since 2009, her delicate handiwork has been shown in several group and solo exhibitions across Europe.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.